Two republicans suspected of the sectarian murder of a taxi driver in north Belfast were targeted in punishment shootings shortly after the killing, an inquest heard today.
A senior PSNI officer told an inquest into the death of Trevor Kell that a man arrested by police in connection with the murder and another man officers wished to question were shot in the legs by republicans.
Detective Chief Superintendent John Brannigan said police believed disaffected republicans murdered Mr Kell at a time when sectarian tensions were running high in the area.
Mr Kell, aged 35, from Torrens Drive in north Belfast, was shot once in the head at point blank range when he went to pick up a fare on Hesketh Road in the Glenbryn area on December 5, 2000.
His brother, Grant, told Belfast Coroner’s Court Mr Kell was shot dead on only his second night working for Circle Taxis.
Det Chief Supt Brannigan said Mr Kell was targeted simply because he was a Protestant man working for a Protestant taxi firm.
“This was a purely random sectarian murder,” he said.
“Those responsible wanted to kill a Protestant.”
A phonecall was made to Circle Taxis from a public phonebox calling for a cab to take a fare from an address in Hesketh Road to the Mater Hospital shortly after 11pm on the night of the murder.
Det Chief Supt Brannigan said police believed the attacker or attackers had waited for Mr Kell to arrive, before escaping on foot to the nearby nationalist Ardoyne area.
“There was no claim of responsibility and that’s still the position,” he said.
“Our intelligence would indicate that the murder was carried out by republicans, most likely someone who was not attached to the mainstream, or disaffected members of the Provisionals.”
Det Chief Supt Brannigan said he could not emphatically say those responsible for the murder were dissident republicans.
“There was ongoing sectarian tension within the whole area at that particular time and it was a volatile place,” he said.
He said officers arrested two men in connection with the murder but no-one was charged.
“We did make two arrests and both persons were released due to lack of evidence,” he said.
“One person was a republican and the other person was an associate.”
The dead man’s father, Robert Kell, asked the officer if the two arrested men had been shot in the legs in the republican Short Strand area of the city shortly after the murder.
Det Chief Supt confirmed: “There were two punishment shootings subsequent to the murder.
“They involved one individual who we arrested and another person whom we wished to question.”
He also confirmed the two men did not co-operate with police investigating the attacks on them.
The mainstream Provisional IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army, and the dissident republican groups the Real IRA and Continuity IRA all released statements denying involvement in Mr Kell’s murder at the time of his death.
State Pathologist for Northern Ireland Professor Jack Crane, who carried out the post-mortem, said Mr Kell was shot once in the right side of the face from a distance of around two feet.
Det Chief Supt Brannigan said: “We believe that the window of the car was slightly open and we believe the gunman put his hand into the car and fired from within the car.”
The resident of the house to which the taxi was called, told the court she heard a car horn sound several times before hearing a crack like a firework going off.
She and her husband then went out and found Mr Kell slumped in the driver’s seat of the car, before calling the police and ambulance.
“I tried to stay with him as long as I could,” she said.
“I didn’t want him to be on his own.”
Greater Belfast Coroner John Leckey found Mr Kell was murdered by being shot once in the head.
“To date no-one has been made amenable for his death and there has been no claim of responsibility, although it is believed disaffected republicans were responsible,” he said.
Mr Leckey said he had unfortunately presided over the inquests of a number of taxi drivers who had been the victims of sectarian murders during the troubles.
“Taxi drivers of whatever religious persuasion are easy targets,” he said.
“The tragedy is made worse by the fact that this was Mr Kell’s second night working as a taxi driver.”